Planet Waves | Pet Rock by Steve Bergstein


Photo courtesy of Bruce Springsteen Newsroom

Pet Rock | Born in the USA, 16 years later

By Steve Bergstein
Planet Waves Digital Media

It is clear that, for draft-age men during the Vietnam War, the United States was a military dictatorship, not a democracy. Through conscription, or the draft, the government forced men to prosecute an undeclared war half-way around the globe. Even if the war was morally justified, the choice - war or jail - would seem to violate the Constitutional prohibition against involuntary servitude. But the war was an immoral and imperialist fight that killed over a million Vietnamese and ruined the lives of countless Americans who were lucky to return home alive. For many young American men, the only choices were fight this war, go to jail or escape to Canada. By definition, the draft was martial law.

The irony is, although rock music has memorialized and influenced youth culture, few artists have openly addressed the Vietnam experience, and those who have did not write songs for the ages. An exception is Bruce Springsteen, who recorded one of the most misunderstood songs in rock history 16 years ago.

Musically, Born in the USA is a powerful song. The opening track on the album of the same name, Born in the USA ushered in a new sound for Springsteen: a big drum sound and production so crispy you could leave it milk for days and still eat it for breakfast. The album remains Springsteen's biggest seller, with zillions of copies flying off the shelves in 1984-85.

The album is largely pessimistic, with a dash of hope, but mostly pessimistic. Dancing in the Dark shows a despondent loser looking for a spark, trying to get it on with some girl. But at least he's trying. Glory Days reveals a guy who's living in the past, but he just laughs it off. My Hometown is about a community turned hellhole, but the narrator bonds with his kid in the process.

But the title track is different. There is nothing optimistic about Born in the USA. The singer wonders why, after fighting in Vietnam, he comes home with nothing waiting for him.

Born down in a dead man's town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
. . .

Got in a little hometown jam so they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to the foreign land to go and kill the yellow man
. . .

Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says 'son if it was up to me'
Went down to the VA man
He said, 'Son, don't you understand now'

Springsteen punctuated these lyrics with a simple riff and a sing-along chorus, "Born in the USA, I was born in the USA." That did it. Forget about the injustice of fighting a war and coming home to nothing. Forget that Born in the USA is really an anti-war song broadcast at the height of Reaganism. It was 1984, and with its head up its ass, America cheerfully re-elected the man who protected death squads in Central America and befriended bloody dictators from Chile to Philippines to Indonesia. Who sought "constructive engagement" with the racist government of South Africa but waged covert and overt wars against harmless countries like Nicaragua.

Seeking re-election, Reagan cited Springsteen as king of the American dream. Springsteen responded in kind, telling one concert audience that he doubted Reagan had heard the Nebraska album, a haunting, acoustic antidote to the recession of the early 1980's. Interviewed in Rolling Stone, the Boss said:

I think what's happening is people want to forget. There was Vietnam, there was Watergate, there was Iran -- we were beaten, we were hustled, and then we were humiliated. And I think people have a need to feel good about the country they live in. But what's happening, I think, is that that need, which is a good thing, is gettin' manipulated and exploited. And you see the Reagan reelection ads on TV -- you know, 'It's morning in America' -- and you say, Well, it's not morning in Pittsburgh. It's not morning above 125th Street in New York. It's midnight and, like, there's a bad moon risin'. And that's why when Reagan mentioned my name in New Jersey, I felt it was another manipulation and I had to disassociate myself from the President's kind words.

Consciously or not, Springsteen also responded to Reagan's feel-good silliness through his music. The most powerful moment in Born in the USA is when the narrator sings:

Had a brother at Khe Sahn fighting off the Viet Cong
They're still there he's all gone

It's all in the phrasing. Unlike other stanzas in Born in the USA, no lyrics follow the death of the singer's brother; instead, the E Street Band marches along to the same riff while the singer makes his point through silence.

But it was not enough. The public thought Born in the USA was a patriotic anthem, and advertisers tried to exploit the song in the best capitalist tradition. (Springsteen wouldn't sell out). The album cover - with its large American flag - didn't help any. Except that Springsteen posed with his back to the audience. It looks like the boy from Jersey is urinating on the colors.

So on his world tour, Springsteen played Born in the USA to screaming fans. Except that he did not play it dutifully. On his live album, Springsteen screams out the song. And when singing about the guy who lost his brother in Vietnam, Springsteen did not just let the silence tell the story. In a throaty voice at nearly the top of his lungs, Bruce hollers, "They're still there, he's all gone, gone, gone . . . " It is a powerful moment.

On the same tour, introducing the song "War," Springsteen warns young Americans, "In 1985, blind faith in your government, anything, can get you killed." Bruce also told his audience that the next time war rolled around, the government would be looking for you.

Of course, rock and roll cannot change the world. Musicians did not try to subvert the system in 1980's. Record production was slicker than slick, and artists pumped a fortune into music videos, turning rock stars into TV stars. Like everyone else, Springsteen made rock videos, except that in one video for the Born in the USA album, once again facing the American flag, he turns to the camera with a scruffy beard.

While Born in the USA did not address the morality of the Vietnam War, it could force listeners to think twice the next time around. Yet, for many young Americans, that did not happen.

Through the 1980's, the government bombed Libya, invaded Panama and Grenada, bloated the military budget and introduced "Star Wars." In 1988, a former CIA director was elected president. Three years later, when George Bush raced to war in the Persian Gulf, American warriors did what they were told and pillaged Iraq for reasons our government never coherently articulated. Even scarier, these soldiers actually volunteered for the armed forces, deeming it a good career move. Bush's approval rating shot up to 90 percent. War was back in style.++

Steve Bergstein is a civil rights lawyer in New York.

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